The Stigma of PTSD: A Story of Two Brothers

The Invisible FrontI recently came across a middle age man in the supermarket. He was wearing a bright red T-shirt with “PTSD Awareness” written in large white letters across the back. Admitting the reality of post traumatic stress disorder (as opposed, for example, to calling it a contrived excuse for cowardice) looked to me like it was on the rise.

Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War (2014) compassionately represents the effects of PTSD on service men and women, meanwhile drawing attention to its less publicized occurrence in civilian life. A military journalist, Dreazen’s research allows him to tell the story of two young brothers both factually and convincingly.

Major General Mark Graham and his wife Carol, a teacher, lost both their sons during the early stages of the Iraq War, Kevin to suicide while he was still a ROTC cadet and then Kevin’s older brother Jeff to patrol duty in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

Mark and Carol could not help but be pained by the starkly different public reactions to those two deaths. A cleverly hidden roadside bomb struck and killed the twenty-four year old Jeff as he led his men down the wide highway connecting Ramadi and Baghdad. Over the objections of his fiancée, who hoped at least to touch Jeff one last time, his parents had his casket closed because an IED had blown off one of his hands, both his legs, and most of his face. Jeff’s body, when returned to his hometown church and cemetery, was greeted by a bugler, a marching band, a rifle-firing military honor guard, a posthumously awarded Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and hundreds of flag waving citizens.

Kevin, an altogether different person from Jeff, adored his older brother nevertheless. A good student, Kevin aspired to a career in medicine while Jeff, a talented athlete, took up engineering. Both attended the University of Kentucky though Kevin, who had other academic options, did so somewhat reluctantly. Idolizing their father, both boys also joined ROTC, Jeff out of enthusiastic respect for the military, Kevin mostly to please his parents, Mark and Carol.

Kevin appears to have spent his early years in college at odds with who he was. He popped Ritalin pills to help him concentrate on his studies, but by his junior year his grades had seriously deteriorated. Diagnosed with depression, he started drinking heavily, which made the depression worse. He was aware that if the military found out about the anti-depressants prescribed for him, he would be considered unfit for duty and cut from ROTC. But unwilling to be thought a “quitter,” as he put it to his dad, Kevin stopped taking his Prozac, his depression intensified, and he ended his life by hanging himself from a ceiling fan.

Kevin’s death was met mostly by an awkward silence. Not many mourners attended his funeral, a few religious folk declared his suicide a sin or implicitly blamed his parents for not preventing the loss of their son by recognizing his illness sooner.

PTSD is generally considered a term referring to the aftermath of traumatic incidents like sexual assault, a violent death, or the repeated horrors of war. I suggest that this disorder may also arise from excessive dedication to an institutional culture that runs counter to one’s identity. In Kevin’s case, the military set up expectations for him that he believed he had to meet but simply could not. Other socially important institutions like governmental agencies, educational institutions, business firms and even religious organizations may also have cultures that tend to erode the very self of a person unsuited for them and aggravate the kind of depression that afflicted young Kevin.

Acknowledging the existence of this more widespread form of PTSD can help keep us on the lookout for its signs: substance abuse, sleeplessness, chronic tiredness, a sapping of motivation, and increasing isolation. Stigmatizing these symptoms, on the other hand, could assist an irreversible extinction of personality by suicide.

Suicide is generally considered an impulsive act, and people who have had suicidal thoughts speak of an emptiness or total darkness enveloping them. Among the most damaging reactions to its occurrence are blaming the person so radically depressed or naming the act itself evil, which is inexcusably cruel to his or her survivors.

Such stigmatizing of a mental disorder, or of those close to the one experiencing it, is the real sin. I recently spotted a billboard headlined “Out of the Darkness: Walk to Fight Suicide.” It was set up to commemorate a high school student bullied into suicide by her classmates.

I spent nine impressionable years (from age 17 to age 26) trying to persuade myself that life in the religious order known as the Jesuits was consistent with who I was.  But my memories, especially of my early twenties, clarify for me now that I was then mildly depressed—a mental state I neither requested nor received help for. Not long after I left the Jesuits, I did find a healthy and productive alternative to that way of life in my marriage (now in its fifty-second year), my children, and my career teaching literature, and for that I am inexpressibly grateful.

 

 

 

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